Not to Disturb
Two, A Phallic Novel
Both the new novel by Muriel Spark and the one by Iris Murdoch are as imponderable as they are entertaining, and that is not all they have in common. They have Muriel Spark in common. Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man presents the eccentricities of bed-sitter people in London, and its bounders and bachelors are quite like those who inhabited the early fiction of Muriel Spark, and who even lend something of themselves to the extraordinary mortals in the relatively disembodied recent work Not to Disturb. Both books also have Ivy Compton-Burnett in common. Outcrops of what seems very like her sibylline language might be taken to indicate a line of descent, a weird sisterhood, for these literary women.
Muriel Spark’s omniscient butler burnettly declares: “There is a vast difference between events that arise from and those that merely follow after each other. Those that arise are preferable.” Iris Murdoch’s novel has not only bounders but burnetts—important people who say: “I feel like Cassandra. I feel hollow. Silence is best or else a scream.” “Preferable,” “best”—this is the language of someone who knows. Ivy Compton-Burnett was a prophetess, too: there’s an omniscience that foretells her stories, a divinity that shapes her ends. And foreknowledge and divinity form the least ponderable part of the subject matter of these two new books.
I don’t want to labor these sisterly resemblances, since it might make the new novels seem oppressive, when in fact their touch is light. There is no lightness in Ivy Compton-Burnett. And in the two living ladies omniscience is a theme rather than, as in Compton-Burnett, a status. I don’t doubt that for much of the time the resemblances are a matter of craft, of copying. The new books are about plans and scenarios, about what is designed and what is accidental, what godlike persons may cause and arrange and what escapes their fiat. These godlike activities can be compared—and in Not to Disturb are compared—with the art of the novelist. Both books tell tall stories, and the escape from probability seems meant to assist in the development of a kind of parable.
An English butler is a mighty god, and Muriel Spark’s is named Lister. Led by Lister, the servants of a baron’s house by the shores of Lake Leman near Geneva intend to cash in on the violent deaths of master, mistress, and secretary by selling their stories, in the manner of authors, to the media. This story is told in the present tense. Not only are the victims as good as dead: they are dead. What will be will be—and already is, give or take one or two unforeseen contingencies. Lister broods over his fait accompli as the shutters rattle in the wind and an idiot son—whose claim on the inheritance proves stronger than was anticipated, so that the design is deftly modified—bangs about in the attic.
Lister says of his lord and lady: “They have placed themselves, unfortunately, within the realm of predestination.” “You talk,” runs…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.